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UNC Football: Players to watch vs. Old Dominion

The Heels need another defensive back to step up and solve opponents’ passing games.

Louisville v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

In a quick evaluation of Old Dominion through two games, everything previously known about the Monarchs’ identity has been flipped on its ear. Bobby Wilder’s potent offensive attack has been held to 48 points and under five yards per play by Albany and UMass, but his defense has been outstanding. In those two games, they’re responsible for 15 sacks and 21 tackles for loss.

With that said, it would make sense to highlight a young player on Carolina’s MASH unit O-line. Tackles Charlie Heck and William Sweet are learning on the job, center Jay Jay McCargo replaced Cam Dillard for his first collegiate action on Saturday, and guards Nick Polino and Khaliel Rodgers were largely okay against Louisville.

We’re not going to do that, as Saturday’s game should be about the Heels continuing to establish their identity, and doing so against a much less talented opponent. If the Heels have done anything consistently through two games, it has been a demonstrated ability to not defend the pass.

NCAA Football: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

K.J. Sails and Patrice Rene, you’re on the clock.

The Carolina defense has been a mixed bag this season—the front seven has defended the run quite well when compared to the past two seasons, but the pass defense has been exposed by coverage busts and mismatches in passes to every level.

Sails and Rene, both second-year sophomores, have immense potential. They’re rangy, athletic, and look the part, but have been exposed early this season. Big mental mistakes (such as Rene leaving his assignment and allowing Cal the go-ahead touchdown late in the third quarter) have been costly.

With M.J. Stewart generally playing the nickel and locking down the slot, Rene and Sails have faced a lot of 1-on-1’s. While they’re not picked on as much as the linebackers, both have been instructed to play soft coverage and been beaten underneath a fair bit.

Old Dominion feels like an opportunity for both to develop some much-needed confidence. The Monarchs’ primary quarterback, Blake LaRussa, has thrown two picks and is only averaging 6.9 yards per attempt. They tend to attack the outside in the hitch and slant game often, and both corners should have ample opportunities to be aggressive and make a big play—an interception, a big hit—that help turn the corner into starting-caliber players before the meat of the ACC schedule.

Carolina needs a lot to go right to salvage this season, but there are plenty of opportunities to improve. Cal caught everyone by surprise, but there were encouraging signs against Louisville. A step in the development of the Heels’ sophomore corners would be a major development in the progress for Larry Fedora’s program in 2017 and beyond.